Networking. A word with infinite possibilities for some, and a sinking feeling for others. How do you react? One of my jobs was in an office where we mostly worked spreadsheets to death. (If you've ever met me you'll be thinking, 'Spreadsheets, Claire really? what were you thinking? I talk too much to do spreadsheets). The people with whom I did spreadsheets were extremely brilliant and had mathematical minds. In fact their knowledge dwarfed mine by about 150% (including the guy who started at the same time as me). I felt small and inadequate. I was not worthy until I knew how to be that good...which meant I had to learn pivot tables. I've recently estimated I could probably produce a pivot table if you gave me 1.5 days and lots of coffee. I did try.
Then something wonderful happened. The world became balanced again. I felt better. Why? I'd discovered that although my natural brilliance didn't lie with spreadsheets, I was good at something different and they were stressing about it. My colleagues were worrying about our client event, where they had to talk to clients and potential clients, give a good impression and generally represent the firm.
At first I didn't understand this. When the email popped up on my screen, I saw that it would on everyone else's. I waited a while (I'm a speed reader) and then looked up and said 'How exciting - the annual client event!' Everyone else looked at me as if to say 'Are you crazy?' A room full of strangers, no specific topics of conversation to adhere to and lots of men and women in suits was to them, a terrifying and expansive task.
I realised that more people than I thought feel like that about networking. It seems like something you should do - either to impress your boss, or to drum up some more business. But really, it's the last thing you want to do at the end of a busy Tuesday, talk to a lot of people you don't know, in the hope that one day, somehow, it might end up in a little bit more money at the end of each month.
Although I love talking to people without reason, I want to tell you how I approach it, so that you can use at your next networking event.
Firstly, don't go expectant. In the same way as you don't want to exhibit over-eagerness on a first date, go with only the attitude that you might meet some good people. Because you might not. Desperation is not a good look. You might think 'Well, I'm not desperate to hand out 1000 business cards, but in the heat of the moment (as it were) you might be tempted in order that you have a measure of 'success' (which by the way, is not a measure!) You also might be giving off an air of 'The sooner I've done this, the sooner it will be over'. I'd say this was particularly important at an event you yourself are involved in holding, either as an employee or a part of an industry. If you appear desperate to get clients, it's not a sign of healthy growth.
Secondly, be genuine. Relationships are built slowly, but need to start real. Show the real you. If you think that you might get fired because you're being the real you, start with that issue! Tell people about what you love to do, what you've read recently that's interested you, positive things about yourself that will pique other people's interests. Whether you're the same or different, it doesn't really matter. It's heartening to find things in common with people, and it's exciting to find people who are a bit different.
Thirdly, keep an open mind. If, when first talking to people, you aren't getting anywhere, keep digging. They may be nervous too, and if you hold back judgement, you might be surprised. Be gentle, nice and smiley.
Even if you end up just talking to one person about something which is totally daft and irrelevant, don't worry. It may not seem like it, but a connection can be made in the bizarrest of circumstances. It's about knowing that you've 'clicked' with someone. It happened to me in the pub the other day. So even if your networking event isn't as fruitful as you'd hoped, you can fall back on the fact that you're just as likely to forge a good business contact in your local drinking establishment.